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Theater review: 'Significant Other' a solid, sad look at young gay man's life

Megan Graftaas, Liam Jeffery, Erin Hartford and Sarah Dickson star in UMD's "Significant Others." Photo by Braden Doucette

There’s an essential loneliness present in the lives of gay men that few outside that tribe can fathom. No matter how many of the most amazing friends gay men have and no matter how many of the girls at work love them, single gay men, as they age and remain single, find their own personal relationships diminished by the omnipresence of heteronormative family life.

That’s the weighty material laid out bare on stage in playwright Joshua Harmon’s 2015 dramedy, “Significant Other” on stage now in the Dudley Experimental Theatre at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The play needs an intimate theater. UMD’s choice to put it in the smaller Dudley space in the Marshall Performing Arts Center may limit the seating capacity, but the emotional impact would disappear in a larger setting. The opening night performance was sold out.

The cast of seven, with Eukariah Tabaka and Patrick Timmons carrying the weight of three characters each, is tightly woven in their performances on stage. Perhaps this is due to the inevitable closeness that develops in the weeks of rehearsals before a show opens. Maybe it’s because they’re all pretty near the age of their characters, and the lives they lead on stage are so near in their own life cycles. Whatever the case, director Ann Aiko Bergeron has assembled an impressive company of friends.

The action centers on Jordan (Liam Jeffery), a gay man in his late 20s. He’s a single professional, Jewish and insecure. Weaving in and out of his life are his three besties: Laura (Erin Hartford), Vanessa (Megan Graftaas), and Kiki (Sarah Dickson). As each of them follows the heteronormative track of dating, engagement and marriage, Jordan finds his circle tightening and his relevance diminishing in their lives. Jeffery inhabits the role with remarkable depth. From his plain, unassuming appearance in the costuming — at one point, Vanessa remarks, "Your clothes are so sad!" — to his posture and pacing, there isn't a minute on stage wasted in Jeffery's performance.

He is able to plumb the depths required for Jordan's life with moments of joy and uncomfortable rawness. Any gay man can identify with what's happening on the stage not just because the writing is good, but because the actor is fully committed to the role. The three young women in orbit around Jordan are less intense, but equally committed. Dickson's Kiki is vapid and profane, but loyal. Graftaas’s Vanessa is that one dark but devastatingly blunt friend who knocks us off our foundations when they get traditional. And, of the three actors in Jordan's trio, Hartford is the most memorable. Laura’s relationship with Jordan runs deep, and the two of them powerfully convey all that entails in one of the more painful scenes on stage during Laura’s bachelorette party. The two men in the show are, rightfully, window dressing and peripheral. But both Tabaka and Timmons faithfully provide what's needed in the telling of Jordan's fraught relationships. Tabaka shines as the unattainable Will.

Veteran actor Ellie Martin adds a sad warmth with pops of humor as Jordan's grandmother, Helene. In her brief moments on stage, she's able to convey her worried love for her grandson. The technical crew hits every emotion credibly, and the mechanics of the scene changes are smooth. The play runs at 2 hours, 30 minutes and honestly could use some editing to reduce its run time.

"Significant Other" is a piece of contemporary theater performed at the college level as competently as any main stage production in the city. The student actors have executed a solid show that pulls at hearts and tear ducts alike.

If you go

What: "Significant Other" by Joshua Harmon

When: Nov. 8-10, 13-17 at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at 2 p.m.

Where: University of Minnesota Duluth's Marshall Performing Arts Center, Dudley Experimental Theatre

Tickets: $21 adults. $16 seniors, UMD faculty and veterans. $10 students. $8 UMD students